A Daily Babble Production
On my long list of respected colleagues in the blogosphere, few sit in greater esteem here than the lead writer at Blog-a-Bull, known on the Interwebs these days as your friendly BullsBlogger. His coverage of his beloved Chicago team is top-of-the-line, featuring a potent combination of anecdotal and statistical insight, humor, Sam Smith chatter and the sheer emotion that comes with being a fan. With the Bulls visiting the TD Banknorth Garden tonight, BullsBlogger took a few minutes to chat with us about the prospects for the upcoming season in Chicago.
SW: I've come completely clean in my preseason commentary: The Bulls perplex me more than any other team in the East. What's the deal with these guys? Are they in rebuilding mode? Are they prepared to make a run at the playoffs in the East? What is a fair expectation for this team this season?
BB: They're not rebuilding, that would imply a tearing down. Instead, the same roster returned from last season, and while Derrick Rose just turned 20, he already has taken the reins of the team. So what I think the Bulls are doing is figuring they have one definite piece in Rose (and likely Luol Deng considering he just signed a 6-year contract), using this year is to figure out what can work with him long term. But even with that uncertain plan, they have the talent to make the playoffs. And I think that's a fair expectation, one I'm certainly holding them to. It could be said that the emphasis on young talent means they shouldn't be focused on winning, but their young talent is good.
SW: Last year, you and I had a difference of opinion about the expectations for Luol Deng going into last season: I thought he had been projected to make his leap to superstardom (perhaps taking too much stock in his performance in the Miami sweep); you argued that wasn't the case. Heading into 2008-09 after signing a brand-new contract extension, what standard of play is to be expected from Deng?
BB: What I'm hoping for at a minimum is forgetting his previous injury-riddled and underperforming season and returning to the level that had you excited in that Heat series. If he just gets back to that, he's a solid third option on a great team and worth his contract. In terms of future development, Deng's an interesting case. He came into the league extremely young (he's still only 23), but also with an inverted set of characteristics than most: He wasn't extremely athletic but was already skilled and smart. So the question is then: what can he improve? Especially with a new PG who can get into the lane, it'd be a big step forward for Deng to get a 3-point shot, a range at which he's only 9-for-29 in the past two full seasons combined. Added strength as he gets older means he could possibly add a post game in the future, but I think increasing his range while keeping his great mid-range shooting and off-ball cutting game...he may never be a superstar but the type that makes a couple all-star games in his career.
SW: What player is the most crucial X-factor toward making this Bulls team go this season?
BB: On one level, there is only one factor, X or otherwise, between now and when the Bulls next compete for a title: Derrick Rose. If he's great (and the early returns are even better than expected), then building a team becomes a lot easier. But considering that as a given, the X-factor is Tyrus Thomas. He has the biggest range in expectations given the gap between his talent and his performance two years into the league. One of the reasons Vinny Del Negro was hired was because the organization thought they needed a coach after the Skiles regime who'd give more time towards development while trusting young players, with Tyrus Thomas in the forefront of their minds. The truth about the 'disappointing' career of Thomas is that when he played, even at his spaciest, he was always productive. He always rebounds, is a gifted shotblocker who can also defend out on the perimeter and was one of the few Bulls who could draw fouls. Through preseason and opening night (where he had a 15/10 night) you can see the improvement in his jump shot that really opens up his offensive game, as he's much too quick for most frontcourt opponents.
BB: The Bulls are pretty well vetted, everyone knows they need inside players who can finish (though this is different than the 'post scorer' mantra, which is the less correct term that's often used). They're guard heavy and could really use a consolidating trade to upgrade from depth to top-talent.
I suppose one thing that fans on the outside wouldn't know is how screwy the franchise has been with contracts when it came time to pay the young talent that brought them to the playoffs three straight seasons. Even with revenues that are the envy of the league, the Bulls refuse to go into the luxury tax (though they claim that the Jordan era was an exception that they'd gladly pay for again). Coupling that with the influence owner Jerry Reinsdorf (over the head of Paxson) has reportedly had when personally handling negotiations, it's tough to know exactly who's calling the shots and how some big-money decisions were made. Was Reinsdorf the one who wanted Ben Wallace? Did they consequently trade Tyson Chandler (and then dump J.R. Smith immediately afterwards) just to stay out of the luxury tax? Did the tax cause ownership to veto a Pau Gasol deal (no, they were never getting Kobe)? Why were Hinrich and Nocioni quickly given extensions only to play hardball (cue my readers rolling their eyes...as I often bemoan the eternal screw-job that he gets) with Ben Gordon later on? After successfully gutting and rebuilding the team when first taking the job, Paxson has since looked like a GM without a plan...but it's getting tougher to identify how much of that is his fault.
SW: Score prediction for tonight?
BB: The Bulls' offense looked very good running the court and drawing fouls against the Bucks on opening night. However it's very likely the Celtics will completely shut that down by getting back and clogging the lane. Tyrus Thomas was able to draw fouls on Bogut and Villaneuva, but he won't be able to do that (or get the ref to agree, heh) on Garnett. Vinny is starting Thabo Sefolosha at the two which means there will be no outside shooting to create spacing (and passing options) for Rose. I think the Bulls are going to start the game in a hole and have the type of night where they never get blown out but rarely get within eight points either, on to something like a 98-85 Boston victory.
Much thanks to BullsBlogger or coming aboard today, and I can't stress enough how worth your time it is to read Blog a Bull. In the meantime, here's hoping his handicapping skills are better than mine usually tend to be. Go green!